If you read Game Rant’s previous article on Rock of the Dead you know that it is a zombie shooter in which players wreak havoc on the undead using a guitar. The game has attracted attention not only for its unique premise, but also for its celebrity voice cast that includes the talent of Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Rob Zombie.
After our original Rock of the Dead coverage, we were lucky enough to snag an interview with Bryan Jury, one of the founders of Epicenter and creator of Rock of the Dead. In the interview, he talks in depth about Rock of the Dead, the process of creating the game, the struggles of being an independent developer, and more. Check out the interview below.
Game Rant: For our readers that don’t know, can you give a brief description of what exactly Rock of the Dead is all about?
Bryan Jury: Absolutely! The 15-second pitch is pretty simply this equation: Typing of the Dead — typing + guitars/drums + Neil Patrick Harris + Felicia Day + Rob Zombie = Rock of the Dead. Essentially, Rock of the Dead is an on-rails action game where players use guitars and drums to defeat their enemies. We’ve got a campy sci-fi/horror story where you start in a trailer park and end up in outer space…I’ve often compared it to a SyFy original movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
GR: I’ll get this out of the way early, was Rock of the Dead inspired by Typing of the Dead and are you a fan of it?
Bryan Jury: HUGE fan of Typing of the Dead. I originally bought it for my PC, but eventually forked over some good money on eBay to get SegaNet-branded Dreamcast keyboards so I could play it on my television. I’ve also always found Typing of the Dead to be a great ice-breaker to get your girlfriend playing games since it involves a skill most people already have.
Rock of the Dead is unabashedly inspired by Typing of the Dead. Not necessarily as much directly in concept, but more for taking what is a rather conventional genre (first-person on-rails shooters) and putting a nice twist to it. It was kind of interesting to see that during our early experiments with the game, we would often ask “What does Typing do in this situation?”, but after a couple months, it was a question that was rarely asked.
GR: What about these two genres seemed like a good mix? What does this game offer that traditional music games don’t?
Bryan Jury: One thing that I’d like to say about the game is that while we have a very strong musical presence in the game, I really don’t consider Rock of the Dead to be a rhythm game. One of our designers likes to say it’s a twitch/action game that happens to use music as its weapons, and that sounds about right. Having said that, horror and rock have a long and twisted relationship. You look at some of the early trendsetters like Black Sabbath, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and the Misfits and see how they incorporated horror into their images…they were scary stuff!
But to answer the question more directly, Rock of the Dead introduces a story, creating a purpose for the player’s actions. While there is a robust scoring system and multiple difficulty levels, and we offer a ton of replayability, the reward for the players is also seeing how these characters and this story plays out.
GR: How does the rhythm element of the game compare to Guitar Hero and Rock Band? What will the experience be like for those who've never played a rhythm game, and how will it relate for those who have?
Bryan Jury: Right from the start, we wanted to make sure we weren’t just creating a Guitar Hero or Rock Band clone. I really love those games (especially Rock Band), but they are kind of interactive music videos. We wanted to actually create an action game that just happened to use those guitars and drums as controllers.
Basically, Rock of the Dead’s gameplay can often be broken down into two different methods: timed and untimed measures. Timed measures are most like the traditional Guitar Hero and Rock Band games where the player plays along to a scrolling field of notes set to the background music. This is often used during boss and mini-boss battles. The untimed measures are a lot more like a machinegun. Each enemy will have a series of notes on a measure. Depending on the difficulty, these could be just 2 or 3 single notes, or a rather complex series of chords. The trick here is that you can play these as fast as you’re able to. Once an untimed measure is completed, that enemy is defeated, so you’re going to want to play these as fast as you can. What’s really fun is in our competitive co-op mode, each player can play the same untimed measure at the same time…the first one to complete it gets the points, so you can totally steal those kills while still working together!
Our measures are laid out horizontally rather than the Guitar Hero/Rock Band’s vertical highways. This is due to two reasons: the first being that this actually works for the gameplay we have…you just couldn’t fit a dozen horizontal highways in there when we have a dozen enemies on screen at once. The other reason is a bit boring, but there are certain trademarks and patents that we needed to avoid. Unfortunately that’s just how this industry is becoming. Besides, that’s how PaRappa the Rapper did it, so it can’t be wrong!
I know the horizontal measures might look strange at first, but it really does just take a couple measures and you’ll get the hang of it. If you’ve got Guitar Hero or Rock Band experience, this is just a new kind of challenge, and if you’ve never picked up a plastic guitar or drum before, we’ve got plenty of difficulty modes that you’ll find one that works for you. Our Easy mode has shorter measures and unlimited continues. One of the other cool features is that both players can play together on different difficulties. If you’re a virtual rock star and your little brother isn’t, you can play on Thrasher while he plugs away on Normal.
GR: Are all Rock Band and Guitar Hero peripherals, including the newest ones, compatible with Rock of the Dead? Besides the guitar, can you use other instruments for anything?
Bryan Jury: Every guitar and drum we’ve gotten our hands on works just fine with Rock of the Dead. I’m sure there is some obscure third party stuff out there that may have issues, but pretty much any drums or guitar that works on Rock Band and Guitar Hero will work on Rock of the Dead. You can also use a standard gamepad too if you want to play co-op but only have one instrument.
It’s really a cool and different experience when you have one player on guitar and another on drums, especially if they are on different difficulty levels. There’s a certain controlled chaos that happens that I just hadn’t experienced in a game before. At one point we jokingly considered including microphone support, just to piss off the parents a little.
GR: Felicia Day and Neil Patrick Harris are akin to gods within the geek world. How did you get the opportunity to work with them and was it a good experience?
Bryan Jury: If it’s not completely apparent with their casting, we’re HUGE Dr. Horrible fans. I’m an absolute nerd when it comes to Joss Whedon in general. We’re a pretty small independent studio, but we’ve been able to work with some pretty good voice talent in our games. Our last game, Real Heroes: Firefighter, has James Marsters, Jaime Kennedy and Jenette Goldstein (Vazquez from Aliens) among others. I often get asked how we end up getting these people in our games, and the answer is pretty simple: we pick up the phone and ask! We might get some people who aren’t interested, but most are really intrigued.
With Neil and Felicia, we got a lot of hesitation at first as they are both often inundated with similar offers. But after we sent over descriptions of their characters and how the game works, they signed on pretty much right away. I had the honor of directing their recording sessions, so I got to ask them why they agreed so quickly, and both of them said the concept just really interested them. Felicia actually has a regular Rock Band night at her house, so this was right up her alley.
Both of them were absolutely fantastic to work with. They’re both so talented and professional with what they do, they were some of the easiest sessions I’ve gotten to direct. I did have an awkward moment with each of them though. I hadn’t told them prior to their recording sessions that the other was in the game. I honestly wasn’t sure if they would think a mini Dr. Horrible reunion was going to be a good idea or not. But after I sheepishly brought it up, they both got a big kick out of it, so that was a relief!
GR: Rob Zombie, a music and horror guy, seems like the perfect candidate for this game. How is he involved? Are his contributions purely on the musical side of things or did he help with the horror element as well? Did he create any material specifically for Rock of the Dead?
Bryan Jury: You’re absolutely right about that, Rob Zombie was the perfect candidate for this project. A few months into the project, we were looking for that final musical component. Internally we discussed a few musicians that would work, but it was our producer August Permann at Conspiracy who suggested Rob Zombie. I swear a light bulb popped over all our heads at the same time…absolutely was the perfect suggestion. We ended up tracking him down to see how interested he’d be. Turns out, he was very interested. We worked with him to get the perfect Rob Zombie set-list for the game, and then we took it a step further. We asked him if he’d be interested in being in the game himself, as himself. Turns out he doesn’t really have much time to play games (which is no surprise considering his film and music career keeps him so busy), but he was really curious about it. So we actually wrote him into the fiction of the game, and he’s now part of the mythology! I don’t want to spoil too much, but clever players will actually get to face off against him in battle.
His voice recording session was really fun and different from the others. This is a guy who makes his living from his voice, but he had never done VO work before. Every once in a while he’d start sounding a little bit like a pirate! But he’s got an awesome voice, and I’m really happy how it all turned out. He just fits so perfectly with the campy horror/rock vibe that the rest of the game has.
GR: How did the pitch session go for this game? Is the final result close to your original vision? How did the game change over time?
Bryan Jury: We were just about to finish our Firefighter game with Conspiracy, and we were considering what project we wanted to do next. The original concept of Rock of the Dead had hit me a little over a year before then, and I only had a few random notes and sketches around. I showed the idea to the team here, and they were extremely excited about it. So I called up Conspiracy and explained the concept to them, and we were working on it a month or so later. It was seriously the easiest pitch I had ever made, and I give a lot of credit and thanks to our publishing partners Conspiracy and UFO Interactive for seeing how cool this game was going to be, right away.
And the end result is actually pretty darn close to the original concept. There’s an old adage that the original game design document shares maybe 20% in common of the final game, but Rock of the Dead really hit close to that initial vision.
GR: Rock of the Dead appears to be aimed at gamers who enjoy zombies, rock music, and own a plastic guitar. How niche of a game do you think this will be and is there a limit to your potential audience because of it?
Bryan Jury: There’s a saying among writers to “write what you know”. I think the same works in game design. Everyone here at Epicenter loves zombies and rock music, and we all own Rock Band, Guitar Hero or both. I do agree that Rock of the Dead certainly has a niche appeal to it, but can’t you say the same thing about the original Guitar Hero when it originally came out?
One of the core ideas for this game was that we really wanted to give people another game to play with the equipment they already owned. So many gamers have hundreds of dollars of guitar and drum controllers taking up their living rooms, and they pretty much just have one game to use them with. And if you take a look at just how many guitars and drums are out there, it’s a staggering number.
One of the benefits of being a small independent studio with an equally small budget to work with is that we don’t need to have a blockbuster for a project to be commercially successful. And because of that, we’re able to take more risks than the big boys can take. But having said that, I do think this is a game that is approachable by anyone who likes video games. So I guess we’ll find out together!
GR: What were the biggest challenges of developing this game on a small budget?
Bryan Jury: This is a great question. I think the single biggest challenge, regardless of budget, was to get the measures to a place where people just “get it” after a few moments. We probably went through two dozen iterations of how the measures were going to look and play before finalizing them. We’d post ads on the local CraigsList looking for play testers. Some of those earliest sessions were incredibly painful to watch. But by the end of the project, we’d just put a guitar or drums in front of someone without any explanation, and without exception, they were all figuring it out within 20 seconds. We had some awkward moments where we had to ask them to stop playing the game after the session was over and they refused! I guess that’s a good problem to have though.
The single biggest challenge with a small budget is headcount. We’ve always got a ton of ambitious ideas, and we all want to make the greatest game that ever existed. But, as an example, because we had a total of 6 artists on this project, we had to choose our environments very carefully. We knew we were never going to be able to compete with the Gears of Wars or Arkham Asylums of the gaming world. That’s just not possible. So instead we focused on the things we could control, namely making a game that was no-doubt-about it fun to play. As long as people can look beyond the non-AAA graphics, I really do think they’ll find a fun game. And at the end of the day, isn’t that why we play games?
And everyone on the team had a ton of responsibility…if someone started slacking or not putting their all into the project, the whole project would suffer. But to the entire team’s credit, every person here was just as passionate and dedicated at the end of the project as they were at the start. I truly do feel lucky to work with the team that we have here.
GR: Why is Rock of the Dead getting a retail release versus coming out on XBLA/PSN/WiiWare? Those download services have released large scope games and offer many critically acclaimed titles. What does retail offer that XBLA/PSN/WiiWare wouldn’t?
Bryan Jury: There are a few reasons for this. Size is certainly one of them. We’ve got over 2,500 spoken lines of dialogue in multiple languages as well as maybe two hours of music. The game is actually quite huge. If we wanted to get it to fit on XBLA and PSN, we’d have to do a lot of chopping just to fit their size restrictions.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the download services and find myself spending way too much money there every month. Our first game was a WiiWare launch title (Critter Round-Up), and we’ve got a couple of projects we’re working on for XBLA and PSN. But there’s a lot of game there in Rock of the Dead, and a retail disc was the only way we could go.
GR: I understand that the game is intentionally campy. What would you say to gamers who think Rock of the Dead looks silly? Did you ever have to tone anything down?
Bryan Jury: It was a tricky balance to get to where we’re at today with Rock of the Dead. We had an initial script that was just over-the-top silly, and then we brought in Anne Toole who was one of the lead writers for The Witcher. She replaced the silly with a healthy dose of camp, and I think she got the balance pretty good. I do think there are silly moments in the game, but it’s absolutely all in good fun.
And like I mentioned before, I think this game is really, purely, fun. Sure, it’s a little bit different, and it doesn’t always take itself so seriously, but it is fun.
GR: What are some of your favorite games out right now and what games, other than your own, are you looking forward to? What games provided inspiration for Rock of the Dead?
Bryan Jury: Unfortunately, I find myself always playing catch-up with new releases due to my work schedule, which my huge backlog will attest to. I really loved the overall ambiance of Red Dead Redemption, though not always the gameplay. I finally got to play Batman: Arkham Asylum this summer, and can’t believe just how great that game was. The amount of polish there was stunning. It’s one of the few games where after it ended, I was absolutely ready for more. I also found myself playing a lot of PixelJunk Monsters this summer. That tower defense co-op experience was really cool.
Looking forward, I think Fable III is my most anticipated game this fall. Rock Band 3 will also be a day-one purchase. I really hope Fallout: New Vegas is nearly as good as Fallout 3. Dead Space 2 can’t come soon enough. And I’ve got high expectations for Dead Rising 2. I just realized how all these games are sequels…it makes me really hope people are willing to give something new, like Rock of the Dead, a chance.
As for Rock of the Dead’s inspiration, aside from Typing of the Dead, we were heavily inspired by some of the newer on-rails games, namely the Resident Evil series and of course the new House of the Dead. I really was impressed what they did with Dead Space: Extraction, though I did feel like I was watching the game as much as playing it.
GR: Hype your game. Why should gamers pick up Rock of the Dead this fall?
Bryan Jury: Rock of the Dead is an absolutely honest game. There was no meeting where a marketing suit stood up and proudly exclaimed “Guitars + Zombies = Money!” The concept is actually one that is near and dear to our hearts…make what you know, right? With a core team of 16 people, we set out to twist some established concepts into something new. And creating a great same-screen competitive co-op game was something we really enjoy as we feel it’s become a little bit of a lost art. Our publishers, Conspiracy Entertainment and UFO Interactive, were the perfect partners as they gave us complete creative freedom and allowed us to make the game we wanted to make without any of the typical publisher interference.
There are thousands of games out there where can you drive a car, throw a ball or shoot someone in the face with a virtual gun. But Rock of the Dead is the only game you get to kill zombies, mutated insects and aliens with the guitars and drums you already have, which are no doubt collecting a little dust. We’re also very happy to be coming out at a $40 price point. We had a lot of fun creating this game, and we’re very proud of what we were able to accomplish and we really hope you have fun playing it this October!
GR: Thank you for your time and for answering our questions. We can’t wait to get a hold of Rock of the Dead.
Is Rock of the Dead what it takes for you to dust off your plastic instruments? Does this change your perspective on games with smaller budgets? What in this interview struck a chord with you?